Quick Thoughts on Jordan Peterson and his reading of Nietzsche

As rare as it is for me to have interactions with Kronstadt Revolt (KR) readers, the few times it does happen it’s exclusively occurred outside the actual confines of the blog (i.e. mostly emails and private messages through twitter).  My best guess is that due to my low posting frequency they want to make sure there is actually someone still typing away at a keyboard behind the dashboard menu before fruitlessly putting a comment into moderation limbo that may never be read or approved by anyone (as an fyi, comment settings are set to only moderate the first comment you post, to make it easier to control spam from bots; after that first-time approval showing you’re human, your subsequent comments should post automatically).  Never mind that my twitter updates are about as (in)frequent as my blog posts, it is the trend that has developed, and I’m happy to interact with readers who feel the need to check in on a thing or two, here and there.

By far the most viewed posts I have on KR are the one’s about Friedrich Nietzsche (with Nietzsche’s Views on Women in particular getting the lion’s share of these views).  Considering the popularity of the subject, I suppose it makes sense that the majority of questions I get revolve around people either asking for clarification about Nietzschean philosophy, or challenging my interpretation of it.  Neither of which I mind.  Considering I wrote a book about the guy’s philosophy that earns me some amount of profit, it would be absurd of me to scoff at either people asking for more details, or questioning my perspective on the subject.  (If nothing else, I can at least point them to better resources than myself on anything I personally fail to address; usually Nietzsche himself.)

Over the past few months, however, the sporadic question or two I find in my inbox about Nietzsche have more than a few times come attached with one other name: Jordan B. Peterson.  Although usually not so much in the form of a question, as an eager endorsement for me to explore the man’s views on similar topics (or just any of the wide range of social/psychological topics he covers).  If nothing else, the man has an enthusiastic fan base, which very much has grown exponentially since his name started making the rounds on the online “memosphere” in late 2016.  Since then his lectures have become increasingly popular on YouTube, and many people (mostly young men, but others, too, I’m sure) regard him as a foremost intellectual of our time, going so far as to credit him for re-instilling guidance to their lives.

In part, I’m writing this post to serve as a bookmark I can direct future inquiries to that may come my way regarding my thoughts on the man.  Let me start off by saying that I was aware of Peterson somewhat before I was actually aware of Peterson.  To put it less cryptically, I first saw the man in a YouTube segment back in 2011, where he opposed a set of atheist bus ads in Toronto, and where he stealthily mentioned that atheists like Richard Dawkins maybe should be discriminated against (one might be inclined to assume he’s come a long way in the promotion of free speech given he has cultivated it as one of his leading mantras over the course of the last 2 years, however a general dislike, and outright hostility towards open atheism–let alone outright anti-theism–is not an uncommon theme for Peterson to this day, despite his popularity with centrist-to-conservative leaning atheists online).

Unfortunately, in the segment Peterson is never asked whether it’s warranted to be so hostile towards a limited bus ad campaign put on by atheist activists (on their own dime, no less), when one often can’t go 2 miles in most North American metropolitan centers without coming across scores of billboards, posters, films, books, songs, graffiti, church signs, church buildings, and motel room nightstands, all advertising on behalf of Christianity, with little worthwhile resistance from secular voices.

While I didn’t notice it at the time of my first viewing of that debate, I had also come across Peterson’s work a few years prior in the form of his 1999 Maps of Meaning, a book that left no impression on me due to its overemphasis on Jungian psychoanalysis (much of which rests on highly unfalsifiable assertions, which irks not just me, but modern psychology as well, since as a fields it has largely moved away from Carl Jung’s theses and conclusions).  The writing style in the book is also occasionally laced with a distinct tone of self-importance (i.e. repeated mentions of how grand the contents held within it’s pages truly are) that I find personally distracting.  This is just a subjective matter of literary taste (so think of it as nothing more), but my take has always been that if a work is important/intelligent/paradigm-changing it is better to let the work speak for itself, then boast about it to the reader with the very work.  And as a result I quickly forgot the book, the man who wrote it, and failed to recognize him as the “Canadian man opposed to atheist bus ads” I saw years later.  I honestly never expected to come across him again, especially not with the large following his views have garnered since my first exposures to him.

Yet, since around early 2017, he has popped back up not just on my radar, but a great deal of the sociopolitical/culture discourse, causing me to try to familiarize myself with his views again (though with a bit more concentration then before).  Peterson is a psychologist by trade, and a lot of his content deals with the dynamic behind chaos and order as prominent in the lives of individuals struggling to find meaning in their existence.  This may be why he’s been described as a surrogate father figure to a segment of millennials who feel directionless in the modern world; a viewpoint both as much harped on by his critics, as it is embraced by his admirers.  His advice can range from the practical (“Clean your room; straighten yourself out first”), to dire warnings against the influence of cultural Marxism (lately, he’s been more keen on dropping the cold war terminology in favor of a more updated “Neo-Marxism,” or just plain “postmodernism”–two distinct terms he has a habit of using interchangeably), to his more spiritual messages bemoaning the modern world’s loss of traditional (i.e. Christian) faith (essentially, he finds that there’s value in the historical/psychological meaning religion, in particular–if not exclusively–Christianity, offers to the human psyche; this social criticism of his is often tied in to his screeds against Marxism and postmodernism, too).

Because the questions directed at me about Peterson involve my thoughts, on his thoughts, about Nietzsche, I’ll write my quick take on what I’ve seen of him on the subject so far.  To me, the man strikes me as someone who doesn’t so much read Nietzsche’s writings, as he reads into Nietzsche’s writings (a habit I warn against in my own book) to make the philosopher’s views sound more sympathetic to his own.

Whenever he brings up Nietzsche in his lectures, it’s usually to point to the Prussian philosopher as an intellect who foresaw the nihilism that the Western world’s gradual move away from traditional (i.e. Christian) faith would lead to, and to cement Peterson’s personal views on why the preservation of Christianity (even if only as a metaphorical archetype to be aspired to) is important both for the individual, and for Western civilization as a whole.  The caveat that he doesn’t usually bother to focus on in these lectures, however, is the fact that as far as Nietzsche was concerned, Christianity itself is ultimately a form of nihilism, precisely because its grounding foundation is imagery and can therefore offer no lasting counter to the harsh empirical reality the modern age has forced on us.  Nietzsche’s subsequent objections to contemporary secular philosophers attempting to create alternatives to Christian values wasn’t due to their move away from Christianity as a moral framework, but their continued reliance of what he considered to be fundamentally Christian morals.  Hence, the philosopher’s wider intellectual project of wanting to create a transvaluation of all values, in which Christian concepts like GoodEvil, and Sin, are to be displaced by a philosophy that affirms life, rather than fetishizes death.

In Nietzsche’s view, Christianity at its core, would always be, and could never be anything more than, a death cult that inverts man’s base instincts and desires into absurd notions of sinfulness, rendering it as a moral system to be entirely hostile to life.  (As a reference, I offer every page, paragraph, and sentence of Nietzsche’s The Antichrist, which in German also translates to “The Anti-Christian”.)

I’ll grant that given the many hours of lecture footage Peterson has up on YouTube where he explores numerous philosophical topics, it’s possible that I missed the part where he goes into depth regarding Nietzsche’s staunch anti-Christian position, and how it’s completely incompatible with his own defense of Christian moral values as a framework for society.  But from all the footage I have seen (and it personally seemed like quite a bit at the time of viewing), Peterson seems to always evoke Nietzsche as a kind of kindred spirit, who would have sided with him against the godless forces undermining Christian morals as a sound foundation of meaning for people.  And, speaking as someone whose familiarity with Nietzsche is just a bit more than the average layperson’s, this strikes me as mistaken at best, and downright deceitful at worst.

I’ve been warned that Jordan Peterson fans have a tendency to get cheeky when they come across even the mildest push back to their favorite psychologist, so my preemptive retort is that, yes, my room is always in a state of unmatched tidiness, and my stance is so upright one would be mistaken to call me anything less than permanently erect.  Hope that settles that matter.

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Private vs. Public Schools

Parents who bear the financial luxury of having the conversation, may eventually find themselves weighing the advantages and disadvantages of sending their children to a well-respected private school, over what has been described as the more lowbrow settings of many public schools.  Full disclosure: I spent some time pursuing a career as an educator in a public high school, so I can attest to the shortcomings of its structure personally, if need be.  I have also been associated with a good many private schools over the years as an academic tutor, so I can also verify how much of their oft-heralded academic superiority is greatly exaggerated by its enthusiasts.

It’s true that many private schools have higher test scores and graduation rates than their public school equivalents.  It’s also true that private schools, being primarily funded by the parents who can afford to send their students there, are not obligated to accept every child looking to enroll into their institution (having parents whose income can meet the financial demands of a private school education is also not always enough, since many private schools reserve the right to dismiss any student whose academic performance or personal views fall short of their satisfactory standards).  Public schools, being funded largely by the state through taxes, are normally prohibited from being selective about their student body (hence why it’s called public education; if you’re under 18, you’re pretty much guaranteed a seat).  However, it is also true that private schools are often better at promoting an engaged and interactive learning experience in the classroom, as opposed to public schools where preparing students on how to pass standardized tests reigns supreme.

I present all of the above not because I want to argue one educational system over the other.  In fact, if I wanted to, I could probably convincingly argue the talking points for either side, without ever injecting my personal views into the discussion.  What I really want to address here is the libertarian argument I often hear in my part of the country, which insists that public schools should be completely replaced in favor of private schools in order to increase the value of America’s education system.  The reason I don’t support this view is because its proponents use questionable criteria to argue against the value of public schools, and because the entire argument appears to be accepted by individuals whose real goal is to  satisfy their already existing political or philosophical ideology, rather than an actual desire to provide a better educational model for the students.

Eliminating public schools will by definition exclude certain people from getting any kind of education–primarily people who need it the most–because there will always be someone who will not be able to pay the tuition, or meet the academic standards of the private institution.  And these children also need to get a basic education if your goal is to truly have an educated populace and be economically competitive on the global market (if it’s not, then disregard this whole post and go about your day).  A proponent of the private-school-only model might argue that private schools come in a variety of forms, and several could be set up where private tuition and high academic standards will not be decisive in enrollment.  To which, perhaps, individuals can donate of their own free choosing to contribute to the basic education of those less affluent in society.  The problem with this line of reason is that it sets out to resolve something for which there is already a solution.

There is in fact already a model in place by which education is provided to those who cannot afford high tuition rates and whose scholarship is not exemplary, and it’s called the public schools system.  What motivation is there to create a complicated set of arrangements within the private school model, when the public schools already serve the function to meet those arrangements?  Essentially, I find two reasons at the heart of it offered by private school proponents, neither of which has much to do with increasing the value of education:

1.  “I don’t like taxes, and big government.”

2.  “I don’t approve of what the state is teaching my child.”

Point number one is popular with libertarians and fiscal conservatives, who feel that government involvement in the marketplace (be it of goods or ideas) and taxation is harmful to the system as a whole, as it leads to over regulation, a lack of productivity, and a stifling of the individual’s liberties in favor of providing communal welfare.  We can debate the validity of these economic points all day if we want, the bottom line as it relates to the public schools is that because public schools are funded by the states (through taxes) they are an infringement against the rights of citizens who may want to opt out of their requirement to pay the taxes which fund institutions they get no services from (either because they have no children, or prefer to send their children to private schools).  The issue I see with this is that while it would make for a compelling sociopolitical discussion about the role of government and civil services, none of it has anything to do with invalidating the notion that public schools serve a needed role in educating citizens who otherwise would have no access to formal schooling.  If your contention lies with the process by which public schools are funded (i.e. taxes), then you have to first voice your concern with the supreme law of the land (U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8).

Whether you agree with the efficiency of it or not, the government (both federal and state) has the constitutional right to collect taxes, which it can in turn use to fund social services; education being one of those services on account that it provides a positive benefit to society.  Thus, the whole justification taken here in favor of private schools over public ones, seems to stem from the fact that the existence and funding of public schools doesn’t align with one’s political beliefs.  But this is unsatisfactory in convincing anybody outside of your mindset in the objective worth of your position, since a socialist could equally argue that private schools ought to be eliminated because they foster a sentiment of elitism and class segregation, which will lead to long-term economic ruin.  The problem with both approaches is that the topic at hand is being used to support one’s predisposed political opinions, instead of letting one’s political opinions rationally derive from the topic at hand.

The second point is, to me, a testament as to why public schools are necessary.  Speaking primarily as a former educator, it needs to be said that when I sought to teach students verifiable, testable, reliable data, I owed it to them not to let their (and their parents’) biases deter their learning process.  There is not doubt that the public school curriculum is at times undermined and dulled by the school board that overseas it, which can have negative affects on the education standards presented to the students.  But ultimately the teacher is still not held accountable directly to any parent or school administrator who may take issue with the philosophical implications of a particular topic raised in class.  Teachers are held accountable to the set district standards, whose authority lies independent of the administrators running the campus and the citizens whose taxes fund the district.  And as long as they can demonstrate that they have not violated said standards, no parent or administrator can dictate the information and content that make up the teacher’s lecture (try as they might at times, they will by necessity lose in every attempt, as they very well should).  Therefore, to promote private schools over public schools as a means to ensure the promulgation of your personal ideals and values in the classroom, is to me a position that is almost pointless to refute, because I guarantee you that there are a number of demonstrable facts, across various academic disciplines, that negate many opinions near and dear to your heart.  Once again, trying to make reality conform to whatever ideology you have chosen to accept is by definition incompatible with providing students with a thorough and comprehensive education.

It is worth mentioning that I am in no way arguing that private school should be abolished, or even that public schools provide a superior education.  I know that there are private schools that do exemplary work, whose curriculum is completely devoid of political or theological considerations, where the primary objective is to give its students a proper education based on good scholarship and proper critical thinking skills.  Hence, I take no issue with there presence in the greater educational system, serving as an alternative to parents who are considering it as a viable venue by which to educate their children.

My main point here is to argue that public schools are necessary as a social service.  Furthermore, my aim is to counter the view prevalent in my neck of the woods (conservative, libertarian-leaning America), where people are inclined to argue against public education because they feel uncomfortable with the way they are funded (i.e. taxes), or don’t like the lesson plan being taught.

If, for instance, you are a parent who prefers for your child not to learn about evolutionary biology, or analyze a work of literature you find vulgar, and opt out for the private school route to avoid the implications you think such things will have on your child’s greater thinking, you have the right to do so without considering my feelings on the matter; nor would I even try to suggest that you in anyway ought to take my considerations on the subject seriously.  However, if you come to this conclusion, and therefore insist not just that other parents should follow your lead, but that the educational system needs to be designed in such a way as to undermine the existence of the public school model, you have essentially forced me to engage you on the matter.

My position does not stem from a desire to satisfy the axiomatic precept of my political or theological identification, but from a recognition that many members of society benefit from–and are dependent on–the existence of public schools to educate their children; in hope that a decent education will provide at least some chance of letting them rise higher in the economic hierarchy than their parents.  I see no reason why I should stand in the way of this hope, or concede the argument to those who aim to do just that.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm”

Few writers manage to personify the pangs of life as well as Edgar Allan Poe.  While many of the Romantics-themed writers of his day focused on encapsulating what they perceived as the quasi-transcendence of life and nature, and the beauty beheld by it, Poe set his sights past the glitter, and sought to present the (at the time) oft-neglected darker themes surrounding human existence.  More than mere pessimism though, his writing betrays a delicate understanding in the balance that exists between beauty and the grotesque, joy and pain, light and dark, life and death.

By artistic extension, the theme of helpless inevitability regarding the dynamic between life and death defines a great deal of the macabre tone Edgar Allan Poe creates in his prose.  Death has a special place in Poe’s work, and often takes center stage as the primary character underlying the plot of the narrative; always in the role of an unspoken, absolutist sovereign whose authority has no equal.  “The Conqueror Worm” is not the first (nor the last) poem in which Poe explores the persona of Death as the sole sovereign before which all life and imagined existence must ultimately bow, but it is a key work illustrating the poet’s deeper understanding of the phenomenons relation to life, and the human experience of it.

Lo! ’t is a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.

The described scene is one in which even angels, servants of God and guardians of man, must humble themselves to the role of mere spectators before the play of life; the outcome of who’s plot they have no say over, and can do little but cry at the sight of the tragedy for the actors on stage.

Mimes, in the form of God on high,
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly—
Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
Invisible Wo!

The characters of the play are mimes, in the form of God–symbolizing man, said to have been made in the image of God–trapped in a continuous roundelay, chasing intangible matters they have no hope of catching, but cannot help but go after like puppets being pulled by their strings.

That motley drama—oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.

This path man is set to repeat, brings him nothing but despair and hopelessness, as he is doomed to always return to the same scene in his plot.  A fate so dire that even if he recognized the vicious circle he’s in, he’d still be bound to carry on acting through the futility of his existence.  However, although neither man nor divine intervention can free him from his plight, a bittersweet recourse does emerge to finally cut the puppet strings forcing him through his acts.

But see, amid the mimic rout,
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.

In the end, while man obediently gives chase to the phantoms keeping him trapped as an actor in the play of life, Death emerges from out of the scene to devour the actor, and finish the play for good.

Death’s intrusion in man’s scene is fatalistic, in that it signals the drawing of the curtains, and the end of his life:

Out—out are the lights—out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,

But it also signals the end to his grief, by being able to finally conquer the root that is keeping man chained to his relentless despair.  In that view, Death is not the villain in the play called life: he is the hero, in the tragedy called Man.

While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

Sane vs. Insane

Sane:  “Morning.”

Insane:  “Morning.”

Sane:  “How are you feeling?”

Insane:  “Good.”

Sane:  “Good.  Sleep well?”

Insane:  “Always.”

Sane:  “Excellent.  Do you know who and where you are.”

Insane:  “Yes.”

Sane:  “Who are you?  Where are you?”

Insane:  “I’m a patient at a psychiatric facility for the mentally disturbed.”

Sane:  “Do you know why you’re here?”

Insane:  “If I was to take a wild guess, I’d assume it’s because you think I’m mentally disturbed.”

Sane:  “Do you disagree?”

Insane:  “I wasn’t aware I had a vote in the matter.”

Sane:  “Why do you think you’re here?”

Insane:  “Because you think I’m dangerous.”

Sane:  “Dangerous in what way?”

Insane:  “Don’t know.  I’m not the one who thinks this, you are.”

Sane:  “If you had to, how would you prefer to describe yourself then?”

Insane:  “Aware.”

Sane:  “Aware?”

Insane:  “Yes.”

Sane:  “Of…”

Insane:  “Everything.  Everything that matters.”

Sane:  “Everything?  Like secret plots and conspiracies, things of that nature?”

Insane:   “Amongst other things.”

Sane:  “I see. What about other people?  Are they as aware as you are?”

Insane:  “No, it doesn’t look like they are.  I suppose if you all were, you wouldn’t have put me in here.”

Sane:  “Makes sense.  Can you tell me any specific things or details you are aware of which others aren’t?”

Insane:  “No, I can’t.  You’re already convinced I’m crazy and everything I say will just further validate this belief.”

Sane:  “And you don’t think that you’re crazy?”

Insane:  “As a matter of fact, I don’t.”

Sane:  “Why not?”

Insane:  “I can’t prove a negative.  Tell me why you think I’m crazy and I’ll tell you why you’re wrong.”

Sane:  “Okay.  You admit to being aware of things that other people aren’t, correct?”

Insane:  “Yes.”

Sane:  “And you are convinced that this awareness gives you insights to details that go by unnoticed to the rest of us?”

Insane:  “Yes.”

Sane:  “And, since only you can notice these details, your testimony is the only source you have to validate any of it, since (by your own admission) the rest of us lack the awareness to attest to anything that you’re saying.  Correct?”

Insane:  “You’re making it sound a bit more simplistic than I would.  But sure, that’s essentially right.”

Sane:  “So, what does it tell you when you have a piece of information that only you have the awareness to notice, whose validity cannot be deduced by anyone else’s perception but your own?  Would you agree that, given all this, you ought to exercise a bit of caution about how much trust you can place in this awareness of yours, and the validity of these various plots and conspiracies it’s helped you uncover?  Perhaps consider the alternative that all you think is so right and real, is possibly just the result of possessing a very confused mental state?”

(In)sane:  “Perhaps.  But, by that same token, how can I be sure that, what you perceive to be a healthy state of mind, isn’t simply a failure on your part to connect all the relevant dots?”

 

Excerpt from The Insomniac Manifesto, available for free here.

On Arguing Economics

Just to get the main point across allow me to start this post by simply stating, there exists no such thing as the economic model from which we can impartially derive any sort of self-evident conclusions, policies, or values.  By which I mean that there is no purity test to determine which economic model is somehow more objectively “valid” than another.

For example, take two modern economic models that stand on completely opposite sides of the spectrum:  Marxist communism and laissez-faire freemarket capitalism.  [I’m aware that different people have over the decades attempted to give varying definitions within both these models, thereby making an overreaching analysis on my part impossible; hence, I will primarily be addressing elements that are agreed upon components by almost all professional voices in the aforementioned fields.]  Putting aside what Marxism has come to mean to the layperson through the various revolutionary forces that carried its banner in the 20th Century, at the core of the economic model is the proposition that societal development is best understood as the process by which humans–as a collective–produce the necessities of life (often referred to as historical materialism among Marxist scholars).  While the nuances of the whole thing can get very convoluted from here on out, the basic framework Marx was working off of, within this scope of historical materialism, is that human society is better served if the workers who physically produce the products necessary for the life of all of society retained economic control over said products.  From this he further postulated the emergence of a commune like market of commerce, in which production is owned and distributed equally among all sectors of society (i.e. communism), as a historical inevitability that human development is progressively heading towards in the modern era.

The theoretical problem of course in the Marxist economic model is that the validity of historical materialism is dependent on the notion that we accept the validity of historical materialism; this is otherwise known as a tautology (or circular argument), and is fallacious by definition.  The practical part being ignored in this model is that the perception of human progress as developing towards one specific sociocultural norm or another is only evident in hindsight, and any economic/social course that ends up developing can in retrospect be rationalized in terms of its preceding events; this is true even for identical situations that yield contrasting outcomes.  Not to mention, if we are to approach economics from a historical perspective (as Marxism claims) a decent case could be made that human nature (even in modern, industrial time) seems to be more conducive on creating hierarchical social structures, rather than collective communes.

Before any freemarket advocates who might be reading this start handing out congratulatory “Likes” to my dismantling of Marxism (I’m looking your way libertarians and self-styled classical liberals), it needs to be said that the reasoning underlying laissez-faire freemarket capitalism fares no better than its socialist antipodes.  The premise that economic sectors perform at their best when market forces are allowed to compete unmolested by non-market factors (like the government), rests on the idea that little to no regulation will in itself create an environment in which all the various forces that make up the marketplace will have to compete against one another; theoretically leaving the final word on what products/serves are to succeed in the freemarket to the consumers (i.e. all of us).  In theory, this sounds great; in practice, just like when it comes to Marxist economics, historical data casts a few doubts on the extent to which laissez-faire capitalism holds up.

First, the proposition that the freemarket is something akin to a self-sustaining, self-correcting organism ignores the fact that the freemarket is–above all else–entirely man-made.  The freemarket, as an economic plane in which human beings exchange commerce, is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, anymore than a locomotive is a naturally occurring phenomenon; we purposefully invented it to serve our economic needs.  Thus, to argue a “hands-off” approach to an entity whose very existence is owed to primarily “hands-on” interests, can be argued to be more than a bit narrow-sighted.

More than that, when we look at the era in which laissez-faire freemarket capitalism thrived unmitigated in the U.S.–the late 19th and early 20th Centuries–instead of seeing a marketplace of robust competition, driven by the needs of the consumer, we see a gradual concentration of market power in the hands of a handful of conglomerates.  The reason being that, economically speaking, the initial surge in competition experienced in a newly emerging market, left to its own devices, can in time have a minority of businesses surpass their competition to the point that they are virtually the only option on the market left for the consumer.  In this historical scenario, the presence of a laissez-faire freemarket did not create a healthy competitive environment, nor did it have any means to correct the centralization of commerce powers in the hands of the few over the many.  (In fact, in this case the government actually did have to step in and implement anti-monopoly laws to try and introduce competition back into the market.)  Therefore, the unanswered (or unanswerable) question concerning laissez-faire capitalism is the issue of–given the proposition that faceless, easily corrupted government agencies cannot be trusted enough to interfere with the business operations of the freemarket–why faceless, easily corruptible conglomerates ought to, for some reason, be seen as more trustworthy in this regard?

Although this much should be obvious by now, the point of this post isn’t to convince anyone to accept the superiority of one economic theory over another.  Even as far as the two (admittedly more extreme) examples cited above, I’m sure that given more time and interest we all could go back and forth listing all the sincere benefits and advantages of both Marxism and laissez-faire capitalism.  Acknowledging this, my greater point about economics remains the same, which is that while the historical study of economics can produce viable, scientifically tangible, insights about some aspect of human societies (primarily developments in the commercial and fiscal sectors), proposed economic theories themselves lack this level of scientific rigor.  All economic theories (be it Marxism, laissez-faire capitalism, or anything in between) by necessity begin with an assumed conclusion (“human society is naturally moving towards a collective communal state”, “the freemarket operates best when left unregulated”, etc. etc. etc.) and then go on to selectively interpret all socioeconomic developments through the lens of whatever situation is more conducive to the promotion of the favored economic conditions already accepted by the economic theory in question.

From this it certainly does not logically follow that all economic theories are equal in their outcome (whether for good or bad).  Or that any one economic theory couldn’t be claimed as more preferable for any specific society (I think most reading this can agree that feudalism would generally be a horrible model for modern society).  What it does mean is that there is no such thing as an all-encompassing, omniscient economic system deduced through unfiltered objective reality, as opposed to individual, subjective human preferences.  In light of that, I think perhaps talks of economics from opposing viewpoints is due a bit more humility and reservation about one’s own pet theories, than what is currently on display in public discourse.

Just some food for thought, savor it as you wish.

James Frey: A Lesson of Honesty in Writing

In 2003, James Frey published a widely acclaimed memoir, titled A Million Little Pieces, about his experiences as a young addict struggling to rehabilitate his life back to sobriety.  It is a dark and engaging account of the depth to which a person can fall as his inner demons–in this case, manifesting externally in the form of crack and booze–brings him to a crossroads in which the next handful of decisions could literary be the determining factor between life or death.

Needless to say, the reading public responded very well to the book, and Frey was heralded not just as a great writer and storyteller, but as somewhat of a hero for those who have been affected by the horrors of addiction (either personally, or vicariously), for whom he served as an eloquent communicator to the general public on how to emphasize with their less-than-sober counterparts in society.

As time went by, praise and attention continued to grow, and Frey’s star shined bright enough to even warrant attention from Oprah Winfrey’s coveted Book Club (surely, the hallmark of any author serious about actually selling her or his book in the industry).  Around this same time, however, a different sort of attention was also creeping up and casting a more accusatory shadow over Frey’s spotlight.  Eventually, after much push and pull, and pontificating about integrity and trust, it was revealed that a large chunk of the details concerning Frey’s lived experiences in the book, were not lived experiences at all.  Although we don’t know exactly to what extend things have been fabricated in the faux-memoir, we do know that just about every event detailed that ought to be verifiable (i.e. police records, specific people and interactions, etc.) simply aren’t.  So much so, that the book nowadays sits in the fiction section of your local bookstore, and serves as a case in point of a literary forgery.

Despite all the controversy, it needs to be said that James Frey is actually a decent writer, and A Million Little Pieces is not a badly written book, and given his knack for storytelling he has gone on to write several subsequent works that are equally engaging and enjoyable (though, since the incident, he has wisely kept both feet squarely within the realm of fiction; showing that a person truly can learn something from a degree of public shame).  Thus, the question I’m more interested in concerning this entire mess isn’t really about Frey’s stand alone role in this matter, but rests more on the issue regarding the extend to which the writing world (writ large) has a professional obligation to maintain honesty with its readers?

The question should be an easy one on first sight, for who would say out loud that writers need to be free to unabashedly lie to their audience?  This is especially true for writers whose prose rests in the realm of non-fiction.  Yet, although certainly true, I think just repeating a platitude on this matter does little to really convey the seriousness of an incident like this.

Sticking with the example at hand, I read Frey’s book after the drama had already unfolded, and was never in doubt about the faulty veracity of its claims as one might have been if they came to the work under the ruse of it being an honest memoir of a person’s private struggles.  I can see how someone who had become emotionally invested in the story of the flawed-yet-persistent person fighting to gain back some semblance of meaning and sanity in his chaotic life, would have felt more than a little betrayed on hearing that this “real” person was a mere sensationalized character in one authors hopeful attempt at circumnavigating through the competitive hoops of the publishing world.  They felt duped, and rightfully so, because in a very clear way they were.  And this one experience could very well sour the public and harden a cynical attitude towards the apparently appalling lack of a rigorous vetting process on the hands of publishers more concerned with making a buck of off people’s empathy, then researching on whether the “real-life” story they’re selling is in fact bunk.

This is where the responsibility lies, in my opinion.  The literary world as a whole has an obligation to at the very least accurately promote the product they are selling.  And to do so prior to publication, not post-public outcry, which (let’s be honest) will still push sales by virtue of secondhand curiosity alone.  I accept that I’m naive in my thinking to expect a business to prioritize integrity and honesty over financial imperatives, but seeing as how–if I’m inclined to share an opinion on the matter–I feel obligated it be an honest one; be it idealist, if it must.

The Importance of Consistency in Fiction

The appealing thing about writing fiction as opposed to nonfiction is having the ability to create one’s own reality in the prose.  Be it gravity, atmosphere, characters’ sensory perception, human anatomy and mortality, none of these things need to be bound to the limitations we ourselves feel in our daily lives.  This is a powerful tool that allows authors to explore and describe the worlds they create with interesting insights without having to worry about being in line with the minutiae details of modern physics, and let’s them appeal to the reader’s wonder about the infinite realm of possibilities concerning reality as it can be challenged by her/his imagination.

Science fiction is an excellent example of this, both in book and movie form, where entire alternate universes can be conjured up with their own set of logical rules and physical laws that characters have to abide by.  There is a pitfall in this whole formula, however, that’s easy to fall into if an author is not careful.  While it is true that the sole limitation to the worlds you create is the depth of your own imagination, it needs to be remembered that what makes even a fantasy world realistic and believable to the audience is that–once its rules and laws are laid out–it remains consistent to its own reality.

If characters in a story generally cannot fly, having a character suddenly appear in chapter ten who inexplicable flies is an example of inconsistency.  If the monsters of the story are initially described as slow moving and clumsy, having them give chase in the middle of the story to create suspense is an example of inconsistency.  Speech patterns are a similar issue, where if a character’s accent quirks are sometimes emphasized in text and other times they are not, this is an example of inconsistency.

Generally, in epic sagas like Lord of the Rings it is understood that occasional logical flaws will occur for the sake of keeping the plot going (i.e. why didn’t the Eagles just take Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom at the start of the books, because then the story would be resolved in one book, rather than a trilogy).  Small-scale errors most readers can forgive for the sake of the narrative.  It’s when bigger, more obvious gaps in logic occur that many start to raise their eyebrows suspiciously.  For example, why do the vampires in Twilight go to school?  They’re over a hundred years old in the story, what reason do they have to keep attending high school?  And since they don’t age, do they have to keep changing schools so as not to have to explain why they spent the last ten decades in the same exact grade?  Since they do have regular contact with humans via having to go to school, why aren’t more people suspicious about the fact that none of them have aged, ever?

Science fiction films tend to be even worse offenders to this rule of consistency.  The now forgotten 1994 time traveling movie Timecop, sets up a reality in which time travel exists.  Within this reality they make the explicit mention that you can only travel to the past, never to the future; essentially making this the one and only “time travel rule” the characters need to follow.  Yet, the plot goes on to break this rule almost immediately by having characters who have traveled back to the past return back to their former present; even though, technically, when they travel to the past that past becomes their present, so returning to their original timeline means they are traveling to the future, which is they one thing the plot explicitly states you cannot do in this time traveling reality.  And it’s never explained how this is possible, even in a halfhearted way.  The viewer is simply expected not to notice.  But we do, and we are naturally put off by it, even if we can’t fully articulate why at first viewing.

If you are setting out to write fiction, and epic fantasy fiction at that, by all means let your only limits be the depth of your own creativity.  But please, for the sake of all our collective rational senses (as well as the senses of the characters you have so painstakingly born onto the page), don’t cheapen the experience by failing to have your worlds adhere to the rules and laws of the realities you yourself saw fit to give life to on the page.  Your future legion of devoted readers and admirers will thank you for it.